2011 Spanish Grand Prix goes down as a game of leap frog [spoilers]

2011 Spanish Grand Prix – Click above for high-res image gallery

Ferrari. McLaren. Renault. Williams. The past few decades of Formula One racing have seen each of these teams at the top of their game, claiming championships and dispatching the others along the way. But after watching Brawn GP – having started out as the humble BAR-Honda team and emerging as Mercedes' own factory squad – claim the titles just a couple of years ago, are the years of domination behind us? Or was Brawn's victory merely a hiccup before things return to "normal"? Will Red Bull's championship prove another exception, or will the Anglo-Austrian team emerge as the new force to be reckoned with?

It may take another year or two to watch the pattern unfold, but after winning both titles last year, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have come back strong in 2011. The team has converted pole position to the checkered flag at every race but one so far this season. Would this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix further gird Vettel and Red Bull in the defense of their titles, or would a new challenger draw blood around the corners and down the straights of Barcelona? Continue reading for a recap of today's action.
Sebastian Vettel's streak of pole positions – which ran through every race at the start of this season and back to the closing round in Abu Dhabi last year – ended this weekend in Spain, where his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber claimed the top position. Vettel dropped to second position alongside him. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso lined up on the second row in third and fourth, followed by McLaren's Jenson Button and Renault's Vitaly Petrov, Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg and Ferrari's Felipe Massa, Williams' Pastor Maldonado and Mercedes' Michael Schumacher.

Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso), Sergio Perez (Sauber), Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso), Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil (Force India), Jarno Trulli (Lotus), Rubens Barrichello (Williams), Timo Glock (Virgin), Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) and Jerome d'Ambrosio (Virgin) rounded out the rest of the starting order, as Renault's Nick Heidfeld started from the back after failing to set a qualifying time.

All bets were off, however, when the race got underway. As Webber contended with his wingman, Alonso passed both as well as Hamilton to take the lead in front of an ecstatic home crowd. Vettel squeezed past Webber for second, while Schumacher catapulted up from tenth to sixth. The start didn't go so well for Button, who dropped from fifth to tenth, or for Maldonado, who dropped from ninth to thirteenth as the pack headed into the first corner.

The second lap saw Kobayashi pilot his Sauber-Ferrari into the pit lane to change a punctured left rear tire. By lap five Button was making his way back up the field, passing Buemi for ninth and closing in on Massa in eighth. Maldonado was next to pit, dropping to 18th place.

Vettel was next into the pit box, emerging ninth behind Button, only to pass the Brit into the first corner. He then dispatched Massa and Rosberg in similar fashion. Up at the front, Alonso pitted from lead to re-emerge third, and Webber from second to rejoin in eighth as more drivers ducked into the pit lane. Button subsequently passed Massa and Schumacher before pitting on lap 15 from fifth position. He rejoined the race in seventh. Paul di Resta stopped from eighth to rejoin down in fourteenth place.

By lap 17 of 66, all but Heidfeld and d'Ambrosio had made their first stops, leaving Alonso in the lead just ahead of Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton chasing in third. Webber trailed just a second and a half behind in fourth, with Button moving up at fifth. Schumacher was even further behind in sixth, just ahead of Rosberg. Petrov, Massa and Buemi rounded out the top ten a quarter of the way through the race.

The second round of pit stops commenced with Vettel from second place to re-emerge fourth, followed by Alonso from the lead to rejoin third – a position from which he would never manage to regain the lead. A Merc-on-Merc battle ensued as Rosberg stayed glued to Schumacher's tail. When Hamilton pitted from the lead, he rejoined in second behind Vettel. Alonso was in third and Webber in fourth.

Alonso and Webber nearly collided when exiting pit lane on lap 30, followed by Button, who was running a different stop strategy. Webber then briefly passed Alonso before the Spaniard retook third, only to see a resurgent Button to pass both. By lap 37, Vettel was leading, followed by Hamilton. Button lead Alonso and Webber in third, fourth and fifth, respectively, while Schumacher and Rosberg duked it out for sixth. Massa, Petrov and Maldonado rounded out the top ten.

After the fourth round of pit stops, the yellow flag was waved but no safety car deployed when Karthikeyan crashed his green Lotus. Massa would join him just ten laps later at the end of a protracted campaign to finish in the points.

In he final laps, Hamilton closed on Vettel but ultimately couldn't catch him. When the checkered flag waved, every driver from fifth place down, starting with Alonso, had been lapped by the race leaders.

With the 66 laps of the Catalunya track concluded, Vettel stood atop the podium once again, joined after a hotly contested battle by Hamilton in second and a volatile Button on the third step for a McLaren two-three finish. Webber finished fourth, followed by Alonso, Schumacher, Rosberg, Heidfeld, Perez and Kobayashi. Petrov, di Resta, Sutil, Buemi, Maldonaod, Alguersuari, Barrichello, Trulli, Glock, and d'Ambrosio all finished but outside the points.

The results further cement Vettel's lead in the drivers' standings with 118 points, Hamilton a distant second with 77, Webber in third with 67, Button in fourth with 61, and a disappointed Alonso with 51. Combined scores place Red Bull still in the lead for the constructors' title at 185 points to McLaren's 138 and Ferrari's 75. With a question mark still looming over the potential rescheduling of the Bahrain Grand Prix, which was canceled for the season opener, fourteen rounds still lie ahead as the circus rolls into Monte Carlo for next weekend's glamorous Monaco Grand Prix.

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